After a month of practicing Czech basics, I’ve proudly graduated from telling people “nemluvim České” (I don’t speak Czech) to “mluvim jen trochu České” (I speak just a little Czech). Focusing on my own successes (both big and small) helps to encourage me and remind how much I’ve learned already.
Last week, I traveled by train to a beautiful town called Frenštat, a community nestled in the mountains near the border between the Czech Republic and Slovakia located about an hour away from my own. For the first time, I purchased my own train ticket at the station using Czech thanks to weekly language lessons with my mentor.
In mountainous Frenštat, a fellow Fulbrighter and I discussed the façade of Fulbright as a fully independent experience as we hiked and explored the area. While applying to Fulbright and preparing for my journey ahead, I felt extremely independent. I was graduating college! I had completed student teaching! I would have my very first job in a new country all by myself!
In reality, navigating a foreign place independently is an illusion; I have a newfound respect for all people who have moved, immigrated, or had to assimilate. Here in the Czech Republic, I need help more than ever before.
For example, paying my phone bill online became a huge ordeal when my password needed to be reset and confirmation text messages were going to my mentor’s phone instead of my own. I needed Google Translate many times over, a colleague to further navigate the Czech website and messages I was receiving, and the help of my mentor to call the bank to have the number associated with my account changed to my own.
This feeling of incompetence strikes a discord, particularly because American culture so strongly values individualism and independence. In many ways, my education and my upbringing have prepared me to live on my own and have instilled in me that I should take responsibility for my actions and myself. However, I’ve learned in my short time here that sometimes being responsible for myself really means that I need the help of those around me. And, it always feels amazing to complete a new task on my own here and have the support of my colleagues and new friends.
At our last session at Fulbright’s Prague orientation, a psychologist began his session by commenting on our decision to come to the Czech Republic, stating, “You’ve all chosen to leave your bubble and status as a competent individual. You’ve left the United States and moved to a country the size of some of your cities. You’re confused, incompetent, disoriented, and different – just like a child.”
Despite the seemingly bleak message, all 31 of us seated around two long tables relaxed and began to laugh, giving each other knowing looks. The Czech sense of humor has the wonderful ability to be both dark and refreshingly honest. I immediate thought of my (then not yet paid) phone bill and of accidentally spraying water all over the bathroom floor with the shower head earlier that morning. In three sentences, he managed to sum up the many challenges that we all have experienced during our first month living in the Czech Republic. During our few days in Prague, my cohort shared openly about our wide variety of experience including struggling to find specific groceries, experiencing misogyny, and of course, the language barrier.
I feel extremely grateful that despite the many life adjustments I must make here, I have a wonderful support system of family, friends, and Harrison at home. This weekend I was able to catch up via Facetime with a couple Elon friends and was relieved to hear that despite the fact that we’re in different countries, many of our post-grad feelings and challenges are the same. Additionally, I am beginning to build a network here of fellow Fulbrighters, colleagues, and community members in my town.
The highlight of the Prague orientation was an evening reception held at the Residence of the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic. My mentor and school headmaster both traveled 4 hours to and from Prague in one day to attend the event. It was an honor to mingle with Fulbrighters, Czech commission staff, and diplomats who are dedicated to education and positive foreign relations. After we all introduced ourselves, we chatted and explored the beautiful 1920’s home, originally built by a Jewish family who were only able to live in it for 4 years before having to flee the country.
For most of my life as a student, I thought history was boring. I didn’t really understand how the dates I had to memorize from a textbook applied to my life at all. I’m happy to say that with the help of some great teachers, amazing books, and being here, I have changed my mind. Here, in a country that is only 26 years old, history surrounds me at every turn. Its impact on the lives of the people and influence on my time here is evident. For example, many people who are around 70 here speak German while middle-aged people might have learned Russian during the occupation of the Czech Republic by the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Regime fell in 1989 after the Velvet Revolution, many Russian language teachers in schools were asked to switch to teaching English with no prior training.
Some of my favorite memories thus far have involved simply sitting with others and enjoying coffee, tea, or beer. I love hearing people share about their own life experiences and learning more about the education system. I also appreciate hearing my students’ perspectives. On Friday, I accompanied 1st and 2nd year hotel and tourism students on a day trip to the nearby city of Ostrava. Not only was I able to learn new things about the Czech Silesian region and enjoy the day, but I also was struck by the deep insight of several students, including two boys who commented on their ability to express their emotions differently when speaking English language versus Czech.
Today, I finally received my official teaching schedule that I will be (for the most part) following for my entire year here! I am looking forward to meeting with students on a more-regular basis and will soon be starting several after school English clubs for students and for teachers at my school. In other news, I have joined in on weekly Latin dance classes taught by student at the school who competes nationally. I attended my first class last Friday and enjoyed meeting other young people in the area.
In a response to an Instagram story that I posted, I received several requests to talk about the food on the blog! I should preface this topic by explaining that one difference between America and CZ is that people rarely eat out here (perhaps only for special occasions). A previous ETA shared that it took her months to realize that people did want to hang out with her, they just preferred to do an activity or get coffee, not get a meal together.
Therefore, my main experiences with local food have been at my mentor’s house for family lunches on Sunday afternoon (my favorite!) and eating in the school cafeteria. School lunches are wonderfully priced at about 75 cents a meal and they are large with a soup starter and a main course. Lunch is typically the largest meal of the day for Czech people and it almost always begins with a soup. The food is heavy (lots of meat, bread, and potatoes), but I enjoy it. The only thing (besides Mexican food) that I find myself missing is vegetables, so I usually try to make up for the heavy lunch with a healthy dinner. Additionally, I have ventured out to a few restaurants (mostly during the Prague and Brno orientation).
Some classic dishes that I really enjoy are Svíčková (sirloin steak with bread dumplings and cream sauce), goulash, schnitzel (similar to the German version), garlic soup, sauerkraut (a common side), mushroom soup, and smazeny syr (fried cheese).
Since the school lunch is quite large, as mentioned previously, I typically make myself a small and basic dinner. Although they do not really have tacos here, I was able to find some great salsa last week, so I’ve at least been able to enjoy some flavors I love. I hope that later in the year I can prepare some of my favorite treats for my new friends 🙂
In exciting upcoming news, my parents visit in less than a month and Harrison just booked his plane ticket to visit in December for Christmas!
As always, thank you for reading and čau (ciao) for now!